by Robin English-Bircher, Travel Writer, Texas Wine and Trail
Wine Enthusiast recently named the Texas Hill Country one of its Top Ten wine destinations. For those who follow and drink Texas wine, this wasn’t a surprise. Many Texans find their way into the Hill Country and to one of the thirty-eight wineries and tasting rooms that make-up the Texas Hill Country Wineries. With so much goodness gathered together, it can be quite a challenge to enjoy it all. To help, the Texas Hill Country Wineries offer four trail events throughout the year: Wine Lovers (February 7-23, 2014), Wine and Wildflowers (April 4-20, 2014), Texas Wine Month (October 1-31, 2014), and the Holiday Wine Trail (December 5-21, 2014). To start each trail off right, the member wineries also host a Kick-Off Party. These parties are great welcomes to new visitors and a perfect reunion for longtime friends.
Introducing the Kick-Off Party
Last year, the Texas Hill Country Wine Trails added an extra event to each of their four trails, a kick-off party. These events allow trail guests to meet and greet with a small group of the Texas Hill Country wineries. Hosted at one of the member wineries, the event provides an intimate setting where wine lovers meet with the Texas Hill Country Wine professionals.
The kick-off party is simple. From 6pm-8 on the first Friday of each trail, a small group of member wineries (6-7) gather at the host location. Each winery usually bring three wines for tastings; this collection gives each guests about twenty tasting options to use their ten tickets on. Guests sip these wines in their own logo glass while enjoying small bites, and, often, local food trucks provide more extensive food options (for an additional fee). A local musical act, usually a regular at one of the many wineries, supplies the evening’s soundtrack. Lastly, the winery owners, their knowledgeable and dedicated staff, winemakers, and growers join the festivities. This wonderful package costs only $25 a person (and comes at a discount of price of $15 for those with trail tickets).
A Texas-Style Start – Unpredictable Weather and a Party
This year’s first kick-off party, to start the Wine Lover’s Trail, had a rough start. As we all know, Texas has seen its fair share of nasty winter weather. For most of January and February, the Texas Hill Country weathered a weekly cold blast that often included icy conditions. The first trail weekend was no different from the weeks that proceeded it. The Thursday before, yet another arctic blast slipped into the Hill Country. Recent moisture mixed along with the front left the area covered in another round of ice. Though this wasn’t the worst batch of the season, it did cause issues along the main Hill Country route – Highway 290 – where many wineries either opened late or didn’t open at all on that Friday. Comfort, where the party was to be held, suffered a similar fate. So, for the sake of safety, the party was quickly rescheduled for Saturday night.
On Saturday, the weather finally gave in and provided warmer temperatures and some winter sun, making the kick-off party possible. Unfortunately the schedule change did cause some issues. Some guests couldn’t attend, but they weren’t the only ones. The scheduled food trucks couldn’t come either. This probably hurt the party a bit, as the light snacks were not quite enough to get a person through the evening. The likely resulted in the guests who left quickly; they probably headed out to get dinner. I easily stuck it out, having wisely eaten a more substantial snack before attending; my prediction, the food trucks were not likely to be able to attend, was right.
The Perfect Party Environment
Despite everything, attendees flocked to Singing Waters Vineyards in Comfort. Singing Waters was a great location for the party. The tasting room is divided into four separate rooms; this allowed for ample space for socializing and wine tasting. Two wineries shared a room, which made it easier to sample and linger at each spot. In two of the rooms – the Freedom Room and Barrel Room – ample setting was also available, with a little in the front entrance. If one dared outside – as the sun went down it did get chilly – a patio and other outdoor seating awaited. Actually, Singing Waters has one of the most unique outdoor seating arrangements. Along the creek bed behind the tasting room, tables, chairs, and benches wind along and up into the trees. On a warm, sunny day, this spot reminds me of playing in a treehouse; luckily, this treehouse is easy to get into and the adventurer can bring wine.
The night of the party, the winery’s main entrance welcomed each guest; here we checked in and could also pay for any wines on our way out. Moving into the tasting room, Singing Waters and their neighbor Bending Branch Winery greeted everyone in the larger room just off the entrance. The Freedom Room, to the right, housed the two newest member wineries, Hye Meadow Winery (from Hye of course) and Compass Rose Cellars (from Mason). Here, guests could comfortably lounge and enjoy the spread of snacks. In the Barrel Room, to the right, local singer Brittany Shane entertained the relaxing guests, and Kerrville Hills Winery and Dry Comal Creek Vineyards (from New Braunfels) poured their wines.
What’s a Party Without Wine?
The evening’s wines provided an excellent glimpse into the six wineries. Compass Rose, being relatively small and new, only had one wine available, a rather crisp and enjoyable Pinot Grigio. I spoke with winemaker Robert Nida who said that a number of new wines will soon be joining their portfolio. Hye Meadow brought some crowd pleasers as well, especially their Texas Viognier and Sangiovese. Owner Mike Batek also brought a little of the brand new Dolcetto; I was thrilled to taste it as I had missed the launch the weekend before.
Singing Water poured their great Vintner’s Reserve, but their Sauvignon Blanc – refreshing with a boutique of peaches and melon – grabbed a lot of attention. Bending Branch brought their signature Tannat with their newest vintage made from 100% Texas fruit. In addition, the recently bottled Thinker’s Blend, a blend of eleven different varietals, made a very public appearance (and not in a keg, as it has only been available on tap at Branch on High).
For those with a sweet tooth, the Barrel Room was sure to please. Kerrville Hills provided a touch of sweetness with the sneaky Cake Será Será, a slightly sweet Texas Syrah; this is a sweet red that dry red drinkers can easily enjoy. And for those who stuck around, towards the end of the night, owner and winemaker Wayne Milberger shared the new Just Hangin’ Merlot. Dry Comal Creek had three sweeter wine, including their White-Black Spanish and a sparkler, their Demi-Sweet.
Wine Brings People Together
What makes the kick-off party a great time is a combination of great wine and great people. Getting a chance to meet and talk with those involved with the wineries is always a treat. I am lucky enough to have met and gotten to know many of those who were in attendance at the kick-off party, but that isn’t the case for everyone. Though the owners and winemakers at the Texas Hill Country Wineries do their best to interact with those visiting their wineries, it isn’t always possible. Busy Saturday afternoons often impede such chances, and so do tending tricky vineyards (this is Texas after all) and making extraordinary wine. So, nights like the kick-off party provide a rare chance for those often hard to find folks to meet their fans. And for those of us already acquainted with the owners and winemakers, the evening is a good time to drink, share, and laugh a Texas night away. At this party, there was a rather cool announcement: Bending Branch’s resident wine expert Jennifer Beckmann will be writing a regular wine and drinks article for Edible San Antonio. At the end of the evening, she gifted many of us with a free copy of her first article.
With such congeniality running rampant at the kick-off party, guests found themselves meeting one another. One thing I love about the Texas Wine industry is its friendly demeanor. There is something so basic, so natural about meeting a new person while drinking a glass of wine. Wine brings people together, and time and time again, I have experienced that while visiting Texas wineries and attending Texas wine events. The Texas Hill Country wineries kick-off party just made that much easier. Not long after arriving, my husband and I met a young couple new to the Texas wine scene; we chatted with them on and off all night. We also ran into another couple that we met a few weeks back at Westcave Cellars; at the party, we finally officially met. Throughout the night, it was only naturally to say hello to that person on the left or right; it was just as natural to start sharing thoughts about the wines and Texas wine stories. And we didn’t just share stories, some even shared tickets with people they never met. Camaraderie ruled the evening, all thanks to the intimate setting and casual atmosphere. Sometimes, at the wineries, I have experienced this, but the timing has to be right. I wish festivals allowed for this, but the size and setting often gets in the way. The Texas Hill Country Wineries are lucky to experience such a genial night four times a year.
One Down and Three to Go
As I write this, the first wine trail is in the books. The weather played nice; each weekend saw Spring-like days of warmth and sunshine. On the two Saturdays and one Sunday I found myself out on the trail, the Texas Hill Country Wineries were about to burst with all the happy people. I was glad I attended the kick-off party because it was hard to find the same people I leisurely chatted with that one night.
And though this one party and trail are over, there are still three more chances. With the wildflowers ready to burst, April’s trail and party (at Perissos Vineyard and Winery in Burnet) will be bathed in a rainbow of beauty. October will be here before we know it, along with Texas wine month, and the last trail will be a needed escape from hectic holiday shopping. Tickets will go on sale throughout the year, so it is best to stay abreast by getting the newsletter. And for those sure to join every trail, a Season Pass is still available. With all the traffic sure to make its way into the Texas Hill Country, the best way for loyal Texas wine fans to enjoy the Texas Hill Country Wineries might just be to party with them at the trail kick-off Parties.